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4 Missteps CEOs Make on Social Media

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Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) annual conference. For one of my engagements, I spoke to 400 presidents and chancellors, sharing the value-add of social media through the lens of digital leadership.
Over the course of my time researching, writing and speaking about digital leadership in higher education, I find common missteps campus leaders make online. However, I also find leaders who are capturing magical moments in digital form to make a significant impact.
I’d like to share with you four mistakes that I find executives, especially in higher education, make on social media. These mistakes include silence, bulletin board methods, hands-off strategy and misdirected ROI. With each mistake, I’ll mix in simple strategies that can start making a significant impact on social.

1. Social Silence

One of biggest mistakes executives make isn’t what they post – it’s not having a presence at all.
Many CEOs may have started their careers in higher education or in even their executive roles without social media – heck, maybe even without email. Today, however, digital communication tools reach almost every person in the higher ed sphere, from students (current and prospective) to alumni and donors to faculty and administration. 65% of all adults use social media, and 90% of young adults are active in digital platforms. It’s not just a generational thing; we are all on social in some way.
The number one mistake that I find executives make is discounting the power of social media, which results in silence. This includes not having a presence in their own pages or not being featured in university-managed pages. Silence also includes a lack of interaction in comments, replies, and tags. Some of these simple “digital hugs” can go such a long way with your campus community.

Some CEOs view social media as a waste of time, while others fear making missteps that threaten the institutions they represent. Others simply feel they don’t have the resources a dedicated social media presence requires. Silence is simple and easy, but social media silence is really ignoring your campus community.
The idea of adding social media management to an already busy schedule can be daunting, but that shouldn’t stop you – even if you just start with one platform! I like Kevin O’Connell’s “30-Seconds-of-Work” perspective: taking just 30 seconds to send out a tweet or snap a pic for Instagram can lead to some amazing outcomes. FastCompany also has some great advice in their “Quick Start Guide To Social Media for Time-Strapped Execs.”
Thom D. Chesney, President of Brookhaven University shared with me that Twitter is his primary platform. Not Facebook, not Instagram and nope, definitely not Snapchat. And yes, this is okay! He is active throughout the week, featuring Brookhaven staff, faculty, and student stories. Check out the heartwarming highlight below. It is in these simple yet significant posts we begin to see the impact of campus leaders online.

2. Being a Bulletin Board

One major component of social media is sharing what’s important to you, whether it’s an article that you find interesting or an event that’s happening on your campus. However, that’s not the most important part of social media. The most important part is in the name: social interactions. That means liking, commenting, and engaging in the conversations that take place on social media platforms.
Taking this further, social is about relationships and not just marketing methods. Call this approach authentic, genuine or just simplifying being approachable. People want to connect with people – not products, and definitely not office spaces in a campus building or tables at a career fair. But I see it over and over again, a stream of posters, advertisements and marketing like a cluttered bulletin board in the student union. A tiny adjustment – I want to see your photo as the profile photo – not your university logo. People want to follow people.
But don’t let your ego get carried away, it’s not all about you as the president, chancellor, Vice President or Dean. Your job is to recognize and celebrate others. Take it from the president of Eastern Kentucky University, Michael Benson.

Getting a bit more personal may at first be an uncomfortable call for those not used to sharing about themselves online. So take it directly from one highly engaged presidents on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and blogging on Medium, Dr. Walter Kimbrough. He is a great example from higher education of how to authentically engage on social media. As he mentioned in his episode of Josie and the Podcast, he treats his Twitter as “virtual office hours.” Kimbrough shares plenty of articles and posts from his Medium page, but he spends just as much time reaching out to the people who tweet at Dillard University or to the Hip Hop president himself.

3. Hands-Off Strategy

Especially if you don’t feel naturally drawn to or knowledgeable about social media, it can be tempting to hand over your social media accounts to someone else, I get it. Technology and time management is a real issue, from college students up to chancellors. So, letting go of your social media accounts may free up time in your busy schedule and it allows you leverage the digital strategy talents of those who may be more educated on best practices than you are.
But the allure of a hands-off social media approach causes many higher ed CEOs to miss an important point: your unique voice is what makes your social media presence valuable.
This ties in with mistake number two; people crave authentic and genuine interactions on social media. You can only approximate this reality if you’re not actually the person behind the account. People don’t follow you because they want to know what Jessica the social media intern has to say about the latest campus event; they follow you because they want your perspective.

When making choices of who I would include on my top presidents to follow on Twitter or Instagram, a major metric was if the account looked like it was run by someone else. Why would this be such a major deterrent? Students can also sniff out accounts not really managed by you. Most of the time this meant that I would see a lot of #3 with marketing methods, highly curated “statements” without much real-time interactions or honestly much personality.
Now, that is not to say that a campus executive shouldn’t have a team behind them. It’s actually a practice I would recommend to CEOs. But you still need to be hands on. From taking the selfie with students (below find a great and hilarious one), or posting in a conference session like many presidents did in my very own keynote with them. So be honest with your strategy: are you just a puppet, or are you your own person?

Just tried to get me for tuition…at the Basketball game….hmm @kissmyash2_ @myfathataughtme…..smh

A post shared by Dr. Hakim J. Lucas (@vuupresident) on

4. Misdirected ROI

Even with all of the data and reporting tools available on social media platforms, it can be difficult to measure ROI the way we measure other higher education efforts. It’s pretty difficult to declare “this tweet led to this enrollment which led to x number of dollars for our campus,” but that doesn’t mean that social media posts can’t add value – we have to look to other metrics.
Some of the misdirected ROI comes from not having a clear strategy whatsoever. If you are just throwing glitter into the air, sure it may look amazing for a moment, but are you tracking the impacting as it floats out into the atmosphere? Social media strategy can’t be all glitter. It needs to be fueled with social listening, strategy and specific short and long-term outcomes.
Start with listening; do you know what the hot topics are on your campus, within your professional associations, and among leaders at peer institutions? You can capture the pulse of these communities in just 5-10 minutes a day if you’ve chosen the people you follow strategically (and on some platforms, like Twitter, curated lists to represent different audiences). Listening will help you understand the opportunities for your voice in the conversation, and over time will provide the feedback you need to know if it is resonating. This is something you could choose to delegate to a team member if you’re just beginning to build your social media presence.

Your listening should inform your strategy, which encompasses both your goals for being on social media and how you plan to achieve them. While follower count is an easy metric to measure, it’s not the most strategic. Instead of only focusing on follower count, direct conversions, or quick splashes, you should consider how your social media strategy builds engagement, awareness, and can help drive overall communication goals like sentiment or reinforcing key brand messages. The best social media strategy aligns with the institution mission, vision, and strategic plan. I love the perspectives in this article, which shows a huge variety of ways to approach ROI from actual higher education social media professionals.
Finally, think about specific short and long-term outcomes that can serve as targets to achieve the goals from your strategy. Engagement rate is fairly simple to measure on most platforms, and could be benchmarked against other higher ed CEOs. Awareness can be measured by impressions or reach, metrics that are also freely available on most platforms. Specialized software programs can measure the sentiment of your community’s engagement with your posts, or for any particular topic of conversation (which may align with key brand messages). Perhaps you are seeking a very specific outcome that can be tracked manually, like engagements with community leaders, or conversations with journalists as a result of your social media presence.

A strategic approach to your social media presence fueled by social listening and focused on measurable outcomes will ensure that you don’t fall into the trap of misdirected ROI.

Final Thoughts

Most of these missteps are simple to pivot away from into more significant strategies. Start following other executives that you can learn from. For example, I’ve curated nearly 250 campus presidents and chancellors on Twitter in a Twitter list. Pay attention to efforts that match your campus culture, communication style and yes, even personality.
Ready to step up your executive social media game? I offer executive coaching opportunities that will give you the tools and confidence to harness social media in your leadership position or executive job search. For more information on what my coaching services can do for you, click here.
Positioning your entire campus, division or department to embrace digital tools and engage the digital generation? Check out the consulting and speaking I offer for administrators, faculty and even students – click here to learn more!
What other mistakes do you find CEOs make on social media? What are the best ones doing right? Make sure to comment below!

If you’re ready to connect with your campus, you’ll love this BRAND NEW resource that I’ve created called Get Connected: The Social Media Guide for Campus Leaders.
This guide shares the latest usage of young adults of social media and how campus leaders can genuinely connect with their campus community.
[button link=”https://www.josieahlquist.com//getconnectedguide/”]Request your free copy[/button]

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

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